The father of modern Turkey and the Greeks

Eighty years after the Turkish nationalist army drove out Pontic Greeks from around the Black Sea, the name of Ataturk still stirs controversy

By Vlasis Agtzidis

The Greek foreign minister's recent visit to Turkey provoked a number of reactions, both positive and negative. Some of the more adverse reactions had to do with the laying of a wreath at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk in Ankara and a visit to a museum erected in Ataturk's honor.

There had been similar, but more virulent, responses three years ago in Thessaloniki when an attempt was make to honor Ataturk's memory by renaming Apostolou Pavlou Street after the father of the modern Turkish state and to hold a conference as a tribute to him.

Yet who was Kemal Ataturk and why does his name provoke so much controversy?

Mustafa Kemal, as was his real name, was born in Thessaloniki in 1881. His mother was a Turkish-Macedonian, ZubeidĀŽ Hanoum, and his father an Albanian, Ali Riza. He was a career officer who early on became a member of liberal Turkish nationalist groups, active chiefly within the Ottoman army. It was the Unity and Progress organization that brought about the coup of 1908, in which the officers known as the "Young Turks" took power. Turkish nationalism was centered in Thessaloniki, where it was decided to resolve the problem of different ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire by wiping out the indigenous Christian populations.

The Young Turk nationalists, whose dream was the creation of a Turkish-Muslim empire reaching from the borders of China to the Mediterranean, entered World War I on the side of the Germans. It was then that Mustafa Kemal showed his military mettle. In 1915, he fought the Allies at the Dardanelles as commander of the 19th Division and it was during the war that decisions regarding ethnic minorities were implemented with the help of the Germans. It was the time of the genocide of the Armenians and the Black Sea (Pontic) Greeks, and large-scale persecution of Greeks in western Asia Minor and eastern Thrace.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire presented an opportunity to deal with the ethnic question, based on the principle of self-determination. The most likely outcome appeared to be the replacement of the multiethnic Muslim empire with nation-states.

The Treaty of Sevres satisfied the desires of the subjugated peoples to a great degree. Turkey would keep the greater part of Asia Minor; Ionia and eastern Thrace would be united with Greece; Armenia and Kurdistan would acquire their independence.

The Greeks, who comprised more than a quarter of the entire population of Ottoman lands, now controlled a sixth of that territory, with the exception of the Black Sea region.

This plan, which partly safeguarded the populations from complete annihilation, was not finally implemented. Greece's presence in Ionia between 1919 and 1922 did nothing to reverse what had begun in 1908.

The Turkish nationalist movement, led by Kemal Ataturk, fought its ultimate battle, helped by the Bolsheviks, the Italians, the French, the Muslim world and the "Great Schism" (between the supporters of the monarchy and those of Eleftherios Venizelos) in Greece.

In May 1919, Kemal disembarked in Samsun on the Black Sea coast and began to organize the Turkish nationalist army. Based on a number of official reports, British Prime Minister Lloyd George made a statement in the House of Commons (The Parliamentary Debates, Fifth Series, 157) that "tens of thousands of (Greek) men, women and children" had been driven out and were dying in a process of deliberate extermination.

"'Extermination' is... the word used by the American Mission," he said.

Even the Soviet envoys, who were fully aware of the Turkish atrocities against Greeks, could not conceal their abhorrence over their ally's terrible crimes.

The Soviet ambassador in Ankara, Aralov, wrote in his memoirs that were published in Moscow in 1960, titled "Vospominaniya Sovietskovo Diplomata 1922-1923," that he was briefed in Samsun by Field Marshal Frunze, who said he had seen a crowd of Greeks who had been slaughtered.

"Barbarically murdered Greeks - old people, children, women," he said, warning Aralov of what he was likely to encounter: "... the bodies of slaughtered Greeks who had been abducted from their homes and killed in the streets."

Aralov discussed the issue with Kemal. "I told him about the terrible slaughter of Greeks that Frunze and then later I myself had seen. Bearing in mind Lenin's advice not to offend Turkey's national pride, I worded my statements carefully..."

The murder of Greeks living in western Asia Minor, which was not under the control of the Greek army, was part of the tactics used by Kemal's forces.

According to a telegram to the French prime minister, found in the French military archives in Paris by the researcher C. Tsirikinidis, from a citizens' committee from cities such as Aidin and Denizli: "... on June 22, 1920, Kemalist forces operating in the region of Nazli in cooperation with criminals from Sokia, looted the homes of Christians... and torched the town, apart from the Muslim quarter, with explosives.

"They completed their mission with murders and torture... According to estimates, over 5,000 people were brutally killed. The remaining 3,000, mostly women and children, were driven inland in a tragic state... Weak old people who were not able to keep up were mercilessly killed on the way, their bodies left by the side of the road... In Denizli, 20,000 Greeks suffered the same fate...The Kemalists were fighting over the spoils..." The last act in the drama was written in September 1922. According to Winston Churchill, Kemal celebrated his triumph by reducing Smyrna to ashes and slaughtering the Christian population there. The Turkish nationalist goal of transforming the multiethnic Ottoman Empire into a Turkish nation was completely successful, leading to Kemal assuming the name "Ataturk," meaning "Father of the Turks." Yet, Churchill continued, of the 2,601,312 Greeks living in Asia Minor and eastern Thrace before 1914, only 1,221,849 survived - those who were registered as refugees in Greece in 1928 and those who were exempted from the exchange of populations.

,Vlasis Agtzidis is a lecturer in modern history at Thessaloniki University.

The nature of Kemalism

As for the nature of Kemalism, lawyers Frank Bovenkert and Yucel Yesilgoz maintain in their study that Kemalism was an "extreme nationalist ideology," one that "attempted, through the use of violence, to create a nation-state in a geographical region that was a product of military conquests..."

Moreover, they also believe that Mustafa Kemal's ideological heritage leaves no room for an exchange of opinions, or an alternative approach to the prevailing one. Nikos Psyrroukis concludes: "The most carefully conducted study on Kemalism convinces us that it is a deeply anti-populist, antidemocratic theory. Pro-Nazism and other reactionary beliefs are its natural outcome... The Kemalist reforms, moreover, are made on the basis of administrative decisions passed down from above. They neglect Turkish cultural heritage, and are an expression of the inferiority complex of Turkey's urban population."

The content of Kemal's "Speeches" are a clear indication of what was to form the foundation of modern Turkish thought.

Militarism is idealized, while nationalist ideology and the military perspective are strongly in evidence. Kemal Ataturk was the authentic voice of Ottoman bureaucracy and the military, which had a precise, one-dimensional view of the solution to the problem of ethnic groups and their rights.


from the Kathimerini Newspaper of Athens